Just Because You Can…

Ninety nine red balloonsкрасные-воздушные-шарики-в-форме-сердечек-летят-к-солнцу
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, its red alert
There ‘s something here from somewhere else
The war machine springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
And focusing it on the sky
The ninety nine red balloons go by

Second verse of “99 Red Balloons” , lyrics by Kevin McAlea

I was watching the Minnesota Vikings losing… again… last fall when a commercial came on for TCF bank. The music accompanying the commercial was quite catchy, and somewhat familiar, and I stopped and listened and realized it was “99 Red Balloons”, a very upbeat, peppy pop tune from the early 1980’s recorded by Nena. (Many know it as “99 Luftballoons”, the German version of the song.) But here’s the thing…just because a tune is all peppy and catchy, doesn’t mean it’s best used for a commercial. I mean, should you use a song about war, the nuclear holocaust and the end of life as we know it to sell your banking products? Really? I know you can… but should you?

My husband has heard me utter that phrase so many times over the years, he’s probably sick of it. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” He typically hears it when we see something that appears particularly visually egregious to us when we are out and about, however over the past year and a half since I started writing this blog, it’s started to mean something more. As social media becomes more prevalent and, along with that, invasive in our lives, it becomes necessary to recognize the criticality of our responsibility in that domain. No longer are we merely writing words, but we’re writing words with the power to hurt as well as heal, to destroy as well as develop. It’s become so easy to say whatever we want to, cloaked in the veil of protection afforded by not being face to face with people, and looking them in the eye. The upside of being face to face with someone and speaking to them of course, is that you hear nuance and tone, you see body language and you’re in the moment. You can respond immediately, defend and refute. With posts like Twitter, all of that is lost. Is it sincere or sarcasm, are they kidding around or cutting you down? In the space of time it takes you to figure it out, “pop goes the weasel” and the whole world has now seen the post. A reputation is ruined, someone is shamed, a war has begun.

Years ago I remember hearing “be really careful about what you put on social media with your activities, it could cost you a job.” Yet too often it seems that the long term impact of what is put on social media isn’t considered. It’s all about firing the first shot, not ensuring you tooks steps to make sure the last one is done. There was a story recently about a prank played on a young boy via social media, telling him that a girl he considered his girlfriend had committed suicide, so he killed himself. He was 11.  So many lives wrecked because of poor decisions.

Consider too, how quickly stories go viral. In the past several weeks we had Pepsi pull their commercial with Kendall Jenner due to racial insensitivity, United Airlines debacle dragging a customer off an airplane and Sean Spicer and his terribly inappropriate statements about Hitler and the Holocaust on Passover.  Within hours it seems the whole world was talking about each of these incidents in Twitter. I loved George Takei’s take on the whole thing, when he tweeted this out:

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I thought it was funny, but also a good reminder that it’s starting to feel like we’re playing “Whack-A-Mole” with all of the ridiculous “are you kidding me? [face palm]” events we read about on the internet and it’s getting harder and harder to keep it all straight!

So I’ll use these examples for myself as lessons, golden nuggets if you will, reminders of how fleeting moments are, that cyberspace is forever. The best way to ensure your sex tape is removed from the internet is to never make one in the first place, be kind and gentle with others, stand up for people when they can’t do it themselves, and ask yourself “just because I can, should I?”

You Don’t Know It’s There Until It’s Not

Eight little words that are pearls, words of wisdom from my mother regarding salt in cooking but applicable to so many things in life. As I was learning to cook when I was quite young, I had asked about salt in particular one day and I can still hear her voice so clearly saying to me, “you don’t know it’s there until it’s not”. That resonated with me then, and stayed with me all these years (and don’t ask me how many years that is, I shan’t tell you!)

The inverse is also true about encounters and experiences that we have, we often don’t realize something was missing until we’ve seen it, heard it or felt it. Where we live in the Twin Cities we got a new chain of Hy-Vee grocery stores last year that brought some much needed competition to our cities. From the incredible variety of types of produce, fresh artisan breads, cheeses, an incredible specialty bakery, to fresh, onsite fast food and a restaurant, shopping there is nothing less than an event. Going there one needs plenty of time, because you’ll want to browse and browse and browse…it keeps going on and on and it’s just plain fun.

I’m also fascinated by the attitudes there. First, the store motto is “there’s a smile in every aisle”, and while it’s a little corny, it’s also true. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve been greeted warmly and multiple times in the same visit, people always asking me if there is anything I need help finding or have questions about. The second thing was the one that really stood out for me, which was it almost felt like the team members were trained in the art of people pleasing, or anticipating needs. One day I was in line to buy groceries and noticed a bag that was designed to stand up in the trunk of the car. I asked the checker if it was designed to hold 2 grocery bags side by side when open. He didn’t know, nor did the young lady bagging my groceries (yes, they bag your groceries there!!) I went ahead and bought it anyway, and turned back to the register and ran my card through to pay for my groceries. Suddenly the young lady bagging them said “yep! It does!” I turned and she had opened up the bag and filled my paper sacks then put them both in the new trunk bag to make sure they easily fit in there, so I would know right then and there. She didn’t need to do that, but it was really nice that she did, and it really made me wonder, “do they teach ‘Never miss an opportunity to delight a customer and try to anticipate needs’ as part of new employee orientation? “ I’ve had other unexpected experiences at the store as well. When I haven’t been able to find something I’m looking for, they don’t tell me where to find it; they bring me to it (“Here, let me show you where that is.”)  If they don’t know where it is, the staff will look it up on the computer and then come back to where you are to update you (“If you wait here, I’ll go and look that up for you and I’ll be right back.”). I’ve never had such a complete and satisfying experience, and didn’t realize it until I actually experienced it. I figured that wasn’t happening by accident so a few days ago when I was there I stopped a manager and asked about it. He confirmed it for me and said that yes, they train all employees that way, to basically “fall all over themselves being helpful” (my words, not his, but the intent is the same) and that they have secret shoppers who actually come in watching for it. I told him it’s why I kept coming back, that I loved being treated like that and really appreciated the service. He thanked me, and his smile really said it all. 

I’ve decided I’m old enough and have paid my dues; I deserve to be treated well. I want to shop at places that treat me as if I’m special, even if I have to pay a little more. (I honestly don’t think I do pay more here, I’m just saying I’m willing to.) I’ll go to a nicer restaurant, go to better retail shops if I’m treated with more kindness, given a bit more help, a smile, or going the extra mile. What I won’t do, is shop at places that treat me like I don’t exist, which is what happened at Sur le table in Edina a few years back. I had shopped at one of their other stores in California in the past and really liked them, and was happy when a new store opened in Minnesota. I went there on a Saturday morning shortly after the store opened. It was quiet; I was maybe the third customer there. If you aren’t from here, you need this for your backstory: Edina is a ritzy, wealthy suburb and the local rumor has it that the letters stand for “Every Day I Need Attention”. While that isn’t really true, there certainly is plenty of attitude there to go around. So I walked in in jeans, a flannel shirt and baseball cap – and after 20 min not one sales person had greeted me, made eye contact with me or approached me in any way. So I walked out, walked a half block down the street to another kitchen store called Cooks of Crocus Hill (where they are MUCH nicer), was immediately greeted, spent a lot of my hard earned money and told them how much nicer they were. The saleswoman replies and said they heard that a lot. As I left it was all I could do not to walk back to Sur le table and walk in like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman “you know, I was in here a little bit ago and you wouldn’t help me, big mistake. HUGE.” But I figured I’d be the grown up and go home.

That’s the funny thing about customer service. We all recognize really lousy service when we experience it, because it unfortunately slaps us in the head and it makes us want to tell everyone about it. So-so customer or adequate customer service, that’s not so simple. Perhaps we’ve become complacent, or have adjusted, even lowered some standards a bit, but whatever the reason is we are no longer bothered by middle of the road because we didn’t realize it wasn’t there, until it something truly stellar comes along. 

Off to Cayo Hueso

 

Sunsets with entertainment, live music, literary history, pirates, roosters, pie, drag queens, Cuba – what’s the common thread running through all of these things? If you don’t know then you’ve never had the fun of visiting the southernmost point in the United States, located in Key West, Florida. IMG_3429 (1)Settled in the early 1800’s and valued at one time for it’s position on the shipping lane known as the Straights of Florida and as a stronghold during the Civil War, Key West, originally known as Cayo Hueso, is rich in history and culture and is incredibly popular as a tourist destination, particularly in the winter. The island is probably the only place in the US that has somewhat lightheartedly declared itself an independent nation and that has it’s own passport, calling itself the “Conch Republic” (the story is too long for this post, but here is a link). It’s only 90 miles from Cuba, the many refugee boat trips over the years described lightheartedly by Jimmy Buffet in his lyrics to “Everybody’s Got a Cousin in Miami”

It was ninety miles to freedom but they took the risk

Though the ocean was all motion and the wind was brisk

The deadly gunboats never saw them in the pale moonlight

They were off to Cayo Hueso by the dawns early light

The gringo in the garden called the customs man

They answered all his questions, were allowed to land

The ladies shared a hairbrush and their husbands had a coke

Then they were taken up to Krome to meet with their kin folk

In spite of the fact that my fellow Jimmy Buffet friends and I consider Key West our mental mecca, I’ve actually only visited once about 20 years ago on a girls’ trip before I was married, when 4 of us planned a trip inadvertently during Fantasy Fest. Think of this as Key West’s version of Mardi Gras, where virtually anything goes – and I do mean anything! How does one do this inadvertently? Well, you begin by purchasing airline tickets first, THEN reserving your hotel room…or trying to. This was back in the day when I barely had e-mail, and we had no idea Fantasy Fest was planned until we tried to get a hotel room and all we could get was the last suite in Key West (at three times the price!) Anyway, I always wanted to go back and just never did, until last week. Yep, it took me 17 years, but I finally talked my husband into going. And while we had a great time, it wasn’t the same Key West that I remembered.

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The Mallory Square mermaid

We did some of the  ‘must do’ touristy things like  watching the sunset at Mallory Square, seeing Ernest Hemingway’s home, and going to have your photo taken at the southernmost point marker. I wasn’t sure what to expect at Mallory Square, but it sure was fun people watching, and I think the entertainers were as much fun as the tourists! There was a crazy Frenchman with his flying stunt cats, and watching his odd little show as he hollered at the cats’ butts and the tourists with an accent as think as peanut butter was simultaneously creepy and hilarious. Jugglers with fire sticks, accordion players, a guitar playing mermaid, acrobats and all kinds of other stuff was happening all along the waterfront. Just keep walking back and forth. Mike and I just kept looking at each other feeling a little like we’d fallen through the looking glass.  I really can’t make this crap up, Google it. Especially Dominique and his flying cats.

One of the things we did, that almost didn’t turn out well, was an evening sunset sailing cruise. (Note to self, next time check the forecast first.) I love sailing, and have been on 4 Windjammer sailing cruises in the Caribbean (think of 3 and 4 masted pirate ships, and you have the right idea!)

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Me, being Jolly Rover crew

We decided to go for a sail on the Jolly Rover, a 2 masted boat, and with a crew of 3. The guy who sold us our tickets used to sail with Windjammer, so it was fun comparing notes with him. The first part of the cruise was fine, and as we set sail they asked if anyone wanted to help raise the sails. Of course my hand was the first (and only!) one up in the air. I helped haul up the sheets which you see in the picture on the left (pull the rigging on the sails for you landlubbers) which I’ve done on other sailing trips, and think is fun, and off we went – sort of. Unfortunately there wasn’t much wind so while the sails filled, we moved awfully slowly. That’s ok though, I mean come on, I’m on the ocean, it’s warm, I’m on a boat, who cares?

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Mike and I at the helm of the Jolly Rover

We took some photos at the helm (beware of sailing hair!), then our captain checked the radar and noticed that there was a squall line coming in and there were wind warnings issued. Interestingly it still wasn’t particularly windy, but time to get the sails down and get back to harbor, fast. Out of nowhere, it seemed, the clouds came in, and we barely made it just outside the harbor when the winds picked up, and essentially blew us the last couple hundred yards back into the slip. We hustled off the boat and into shelter. Got a little rain for maybe 30 min, and then it was over as quick as it started. But it sure was a bummer to ruin the sail and the sunset!

As a writer, there was no way I was going to miss the chance to go over to Hemingway House and see how dear old Ernie lived on Key West for 8 years while he did some of his best writing. There are still  descendants of his infamous 6-toed cats and the penny his 2nd wife embedded in the concrete by the swimming pool (look up the story about how she got his last cent).

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Hemingway’s writing room

Just for the record, I loved his writing room that overlooked the pool, and I want a sanctuary just like it. Imagine a room to dream, loose yourself in like that, be at your most creative. Sigh. I might have to redo my craft room. (I think I just sensed my husband cringing.)

The thing that surprised us the most was probably the age of the people we saw. During the daytime there were people of all ages but the highest percentage were over 65, which neither of us expected. Because the bars are open until 4 am, we figure most of the younger ‘kids’ were sleeping it off during the daytime, then as sunset drew closer most of the over 65 crowd disappeared and the younger people showed up, filling the bars on Duvall, all of which have their doors open to the street, and many also have windows that are open as well, or have musicians outside on a patio, so no matter where you are you can hear music. Walking back to our hotel after dark was an interesting experience, too. We had to walk past a couple of clubs with drag queens, who would station themselves outside to try to get people to come in and watch the show. So as we would approach, we would hear “Hi there honey, how are you?” or “Hi, having fun tonight?” They were perfectly nice and polite, and the easiest thing to do was to greet them back nicely, and just say “yes”. If they asked if we wanted to come in and see the show, I just smiled and gently said “no thanks” and kept going. It’s really not fair, that they look better in a dress and makeup than I do though.

It was fantastic to get away though, from 35 degrees in Minnesota, to 80 degrees in Key West, even if the ocean water was colder than I would like. I suppose if I were laying on the beach and getting all toasty, the chilly water would feel great, but I’m not much of a sun goddess, so dipping my toes in the water it felt pretty chilly to me, but heck, it was still the ocean, which I love and miss!! I can’t wait to go back and hope I don’t wait so long for the next trip to see it.

Oh yeah, did I mention the Key Lime Pie?

Dream a Little Dream

Slowly they enter, in pairs, by fours, sometimes one, then a group to big to count, young and old. They find their seats; the anticipation palpable, if the low hum of constant voices is anything to go by. Scattered around the theater, I can spot some children in costume – a Belle here, a Gaston there. The scent of popcorn fills the air and soon all the seats are filled. The pre-movie scenes are showing on the screen and the lights dim slightly accompanied by a noticeable decrease in the sounds of talking. Then suddenly, the screen goes dark for a moment, and a voice comes over the loudspeaker.32164704480_194c0e2348_b

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to our theater. We hope you will enjoy tonight’s showing of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in 3D. As you exit the theater, please drop your glasses in the boxes at the doors. Now before we begin our showing, we have a special surprise. As some of you may have heard, cast members have been traveling around the country making surprise drop in appearances at different theaters, and we are thrilled that Josh Gad and Dan Stevens are here tonight with us! Please give them a warm welcome!”

And the place goes nuts. (Who am I kidding, me too. Just a little.)  They come in and walk right toward us, and stop to shake our hands and say hello  (because we chose to sit in the row where everyone walks past between tiers) and my husband takes a picture of me standing between them before they continue on toward the front of the theater and…Hey, it’s my fantasy, I get to direct it any way I damn well please.

Seriously though, we really are going to see ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tomorrow night, and is it just a little silly I’m this excited? I mean, I never even saw the Disney original until last week for Pete’s sake. Yeah, I know, that’s pitiful, right? But since I don’t have kids, it sort of slipped off my radar and I just never watched it. Oh I knew the basic story and all, and most of the songs, but just never saw the whole movie. Now, however, with the new movie coming up, I decided I really needed to see it so I knew what the original was. Gawd, I’m such a softie too, sniffle, sniffle, I admit I shed a tear. I’ll probably bawl watching live action. And let’s face it, I’ll watch almost anything with Dan Stevens. (By the way, if you haven’t watched Legion on FX, you’re missing an insane, unreal, amazing, fantastic, incredible show.)  And what percent of us watched Emma Watson grow up as Hermione Granger? Come on, admit it, you’re dying to see her in a more grown up role, aren’t you. No Harry, Ron or Snape, just her.

So some of the cast members really have been doing drop in surprise visits this week at theaters around the country. Of course, with the thousands of theaters that the movie opened at this week, statistically speaking I’m smart enough and realistic enough to know it’s highly unlikely they’ll be coming to our theater. But you know, can you imagine if they did? Holy smokes, wouldn’t that be crazy! I’d say my life was pretty well complete, having seen Cary Elwes live before a showing of ‘The Princess Bride’ on the big screen, and then some of the cast members before seeing ‘Beauty and the Beast’. (Just remember, it’s easier to be happy when you set the bar lower.)

I’ll keep you posted on the outcome, and let you know if it really happens. After all, a girl can dream.

Saturday night, the update, as promised. It breaks my heart to tell you this ;), alas, no real life sightings of Gaston, Le Fou or the Beast, but the movie was wonderful. I thought it was a great experience to see it in 3D, and everything about it was well done. There are a number of laugh out loud events, the songs are well performed by the actors, and it’s visually rich. I can’t wait until it’s out on Blu-ray so we can have a copy at home.

Spring’s a Coming

Wind chills of 30 below zero, snow drifts higher than the top of the car in the winter, followed by springs so short they barely exist and then summer with it’s heat, humidity and blood sucking mosquitos – yep, you need to be especially brave and hardy to live in Minnesota all your life. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. The reality is much less flattering, but there’s no need to go there just yet. Instead, today I’m feeling a little like a certain well-known storyteller that you may have listened to on public radio, who tells tales of his fictional hometown.

We’re starting to awaken from what feels like a strange winter in my hometown of Minneapolis. This year we’ve seen elements of the worst of what winter has to offer us, none of which lasted for more than a day or two, and all of which were spread out just enough to ensure very limited time outside because it was either too cold, too windy, too wet, too icy, too something to enjoy being outside in winter. Please don’t misunderstand, I much prefer sun, sand and 80 degrees, but realistically if we live here, we do have to peacefully co-exist with winter and spend some time outdoors in it, so we learn how to dress for the weather. Boots to -20 or so, heavily insulated parkas, down mittens, fleece hats and scarves, and we follow it up with a hot beverage or two. (Some of us might even have a hot adult beverage or two, but that’s a story for a different day.) That all assumes, however, that whatever layer you’ve donned is enough to protect you from the onslaught of the elements of the moment. Reallistically, there is nothing that protects you well when wind chills are in the dangerous range and then just when that stops, it starts to rain. As the day ends the temperature drops and the rain turns to ice and now everything has a lovely coating of thin ice for a few days. After that melts, the temperature drops again to well below zero. And around and around we went. All flippin winter.

But the other day it was different as Mother Nature messed with us in her own slightly twisted way. Winds shifted from North to South and became almost gently and balmy. The sun made an appearance and was high enough in the sky that it could produce warmth when it touched your skin, which we Minnesotans were brave enough to show since the ambient air temperature was in the 50s. The 50s!  Folks in California pull out parkas and Ugg boots at 61 degrees, or so I’m told, but here we put on T-shirts and shorts and even a few sandals, although since many of us don’t do maintenance pedicures over the winter, our toes don’t have cute polish on and heaven forbid we show our bare toes without adornment. But I digress.

My mornings are special for me, my husband is still asleep, my furry four-legged children haven’t started chattering for the day and the world hasn’t woken up and begun to annoy me. I drink coffee, read the news and try to not get depressed at the general state of things out there. But this one day, as I sat here I suddenly became aware of something different around me. A sound I hadn’t heard for so long that I nearly didn’t recorgnize it, and I had to consciously pause for a moment and think about it. It was the birds chirping outside! For the first time in months, the birds were back and doing their spring thing. Suddenly, all the crap in politics, health care reform, wiretapping, none of it mattered. Spring was on it’s way to Minnesota.

When that happens, there is a noticeable difference in attitudes among residents here. A new spring in our steps is felt, smiles appear on our faces, we start looking strangers in the eyes again and saying hello after a long winter of being bundled up and looking down at the ground. That’s not rudeness by the way, it’s just our way of reducing the number of passages for cold air to enter under our coats – chin down to block the neck opening in case you either didn’t wear a scarf, or in case your scarf doesn’t quite cut the mustard. But hearing the birds as they are singing their little hearts out? Ah, who cares about a little cool air, we can deal with that, spring is on the way! IMG_1404 - Version 3There are chickadees, goldfinches,  and robins, oh my! (OK, we have the chickadees and goldfinches all year long, but they don’t sing a whole lot in winter, and the goldfinches turn a kind of weird shade of chartreuse. When they start looking bright yellow again, that’s another harbinger of spring.)

Of course, just as we allowed our collective emotions to get excited and think winter might be over with, just that fast she turned on us and walloped us with a reminder that it ain’t over til it’s over and “here’s 4 more inches of snow and minus 3 degrees (Farenheit, for those of you in Celcius world) for a temperature” as a reminder to not got too big for our collective britches. Oh well, I hadn’t worn my new boots yet anyway.

Crossing the Great Divide

Look around next time you’re running errands, or when you next read the headlines,  pay extra close attention and you’ll probably be surprised to find an overabundance of labels. Oh I don’t mean sticky labels, or post it notes although it might be better if I did, as those could be removed. I’m talking about the kind that are written with the virtual sharpie, and create invisible divisions. Women’s issues…healthcare issues…education issues…human rights issues…gender equality issues…LGBTQ issues…pay gap issues…human trafficking issues…abuse issues. Each of these has the ability to conjure up a picture of someone in distress in our minds, producing a familiar clench in our collective bellies.

Throughout the election cycle and now into the governing cycle we’ve been inundated with stories that cross the partisan divide, educating our nation on how these great groups of electors will solve each of these problems. They’ll fight the war on hunger, on healthcare and health insurance, on education, on trade, on pay, on this, that and the other. It’s the same story told over and over and over again, and nothing really ever changes. The only thing that’s any different now than 50 or even 100 years ago, is that by virtue of the internet and social media, the megaphone has gotten larger and louder. But are the stories really any different? Or are we just more aware of them because they are now able to be placed in front of us constantly? Isn’t it time to ask ourselves, why nothing ever changes? Why is it that when the politicians get to Washington, they spend all their time playing political tug of war? Did we elect them to do that, or is there something else happening?

In theory we’ve elected these individuals that are, in theorysupposedly bright, yet they faithfully embody Enstein’s Theory of Insanity over and over again, year after year, election cycle after election cycle. (Well, not so much a theory, really. He said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.) As a child, I learn very quickly if I put my hand on a hot stove, I get burned and I don’t do it again. So why do our politicians insist on fighting the identical fights year after year? Two possibilities exist. One, they aren’t bright enough to figure it out (in which case they should never have been re-elected) and two, they’re all crazy like a fox and know that if they actually solved the issues, they’d have no jobs to come back to. If we go with that first possibility, and we ARE re-electing them repeatedly, well then the problems really are our own damn faults, aren’t they, and we’re the ones living up to Einstein’s definition of insanity.  Which leaves the second option, they’re all crazy like a fox.

There is a central theme in a solution however, for all of the issues that the politicians  – whether they are local or national – are tasked to solve. Remove the labels – all of them. Not just from the issues themselves, but from the individuals trying to solve the problems too. No more making this about a man issue or a woman issue, or a Democrat or Republican. It’s not about you-me-us-them. It needs to start being about doing the right thing for people. Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Those last 4 words really are key. It needs to stop being about imposing our beliefs on others, but stopping and thinking about what that really means. How will you feel when someone else forces you to have THEIR beliefs imposed on you against your will? Just because they could? When you begin to think about things with that mindset, suddenly some of the decisions take on new meaning. What might reactions be if someone’s children can’t attend a charter school because a)they already filled their quota for children of minorities  or the poor or b) haven’t filled their quota for children of minorities or the poor so can’t take any more affluent children now even if you CAN donate $1 million to us, so now the Betsy DeVos’s of the world have to send their children to public school whether they like it or not. Or what if our lowest income families that can’t afford healthcare, no longer can get free contraception because of the defunding of planned parenthood, and suddenly we see an increase in birthrates in that demographic? If you’re one of those congressmen or women that have insisted on repeal and replace the ACA, before you continue down this path just stop for a moment and imagine you’re not a congressman/woman but an average hourly wage worker, your spouse can’t work, you live in an apartment and drive a beat up car. Close your eyes and picture it, life is tough, you can’t afford much for new clothes, let alone dining out, and the ACA is the only insurance you can get. Are you still so eager to push thru the plan you propose under those same conditions? What about if you’re a new single mom? Will there be an increase in funding for WIC? For Medicaid? For the stresses imposed on those families? (And to Matt Garza, here’s a newsflash: married couples shouldn’t be forced to practice abstinence just to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.) Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that the ACA doesn’t need fixing, it does. But honestly, ask anyone who has ever worked in a large organization with something like this, is it easier to start over, or incrementally fix, and they’ll probably tell you to incrementally fix it so you don’t make a bigger mess of it.

The issues facing us are people issues. It’s that simple. And until politicians can learn to leave their titles at the door, get off their asses and away from Capitol Hill, really learn how real people live and the real pressures they face, and finally learn to leave the partisan bickering outside the room when they meet, they’ll never figure it out. Or, to paraphrase Donald Ogden Steward and Philip Barry who wrote The Philadelphia Story, “You’ll never be a first class politician until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.”

Customer Dis-Service

Most of the time folks who are out on the front line of customer service do a wonderful job. Their work is mostly thankless, and they really are the unsung heros out there, dealing with crabby customers, screaming kids, rude people, the winkers and grabbers, you name it, it’s probably happened. But every once in a while I just run across one that makes me see red.

We had stopped in the CVS near our house to pick up a prescription, and on the way out after paying for that, I saw something I decided to get as an impulse item. I brought it to the counter, and decided I didn’t feel like paying for this item with my credit card so I was going to pay with Apple Pay, as I could see the symbol on their card reader that indicates they have payment through Near Field Communications. I pull out my iPhone, put my finger on the home button and it registered the transaction with a check mark and a buzz on my phone. Just then I hear the teenager behind the counter. “Ahem. That doesn’t work. Those aren’t set up to work”. I look up and this kid is indicating that I can’t use my iPhone and Apply Pay. When I said quizzically, “but it buzzed like it registered the tranaction” he said “yes, but it won’t send it to our register, so it won’t count as a sale.” I asked if they were going to get that updated so it worked, and he said “well, I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so.” he paused briefly, then said “but it works with the Samsung phone”.

I kid you not.

Say what? It was all I could do not to fly over the counter to choke the snot out of him right then and there. Have you ever seen the movie True Lies?  There is a scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger as Harry is test driving a Corvette with a car salesman/con man named Simon played by Bill Paxton. As Harry is driving, Simon is going on and on about a supposed con job he is pulling off with a woman, who is Harry’s wife. Harry has this mental movie of punching him in the face while he’s driving, hitting him so hard his nose bleeds and Simon is knocked out cold. I had a mental movie too, coming over the counter and grabbing the kid by the shirt, screaming “Does this look like a Samsung phone? Did I even ask about a Samsung phone? Arrggghhhh!”, all of which happened in my mind in a millisecond. What really happened was me choking out “Well that doesn’t do me a whole lot of good now, does it?” all the while doing my level best to inject the appropriate amount of sarcasm for the occasion, knowing full well that my razor sharp wit was no match for his lack thereof. Futility, thy name is wasted zingers.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this happen to me either. A couple of years ago, I was at Best Buy, a big box retailer for stereo and other home goods. I’d gone there to get an amplified FM antenna for our stereo. I asked the first person I could find – who seemed to be working in the stereo department, incidentally – he had no clue what this was. So I explained it to him, thinking perhaps it might be known by another name, and a description would help. (“Well, you know the blue things that squeak and serve no valuable purpose except to make a dog nuts?” “Oh of course, we sell doohickeys.”) So I explained it and said “it allows you to get better FM reception when you have trouble, say with a stereo in the basement.” After a second he shook his head and then said this: “No, but we have an open box reciever I can sell you.” Huh? WTH.  Did I ask for a receiver? Did I, in any way, suggest I was here to buy one because mine was broken?  That one I literally said to the guy, “I don’t need a reciever. That’s not why I came in here. Is there someone else that can help me?” He found a young woman, and I repeated my question to her. She also didn’t know what it was, but at least helpfully led me to where it might be. Together we looked around the items hanging on the display wall, and then I spotted it. When I showed it to her, she said “Oh that’s what that is? I always wondered.”  I started instantly chewing on my tongue to keep myself from saying my first thought out loud, which was, “Really? Then why didn’t you look it up?” But since I was already skeeved at the first guy, I figured silence would keep them from throwing me out of the store.

I sometimes feel like I’m the only curious person left in the world. I like learning, knowledge and information. Not so much that I want to go back to school again, been there, done that and have my advanced degree, thank you very much! No, I’m talking about random stuff that you never know when you’ll need it, like knowing about presidential line of succession, or did a small private plane really crash in a Minneapolis suburb in 1973, or why am I getting an error message on my camera with a particular lens, or what’s the history of Bikini Atoll? screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-4-46-03-pmAnd how about  knowing how to fix things? There is very little in my house that I won’t try to repair, just ask my husband. I’ll install lights and new outlets, fix plumbing (although I don’t like it much), can handle an impact wrench with confidence, and wield a mean caulking gun. Most of what I know how to do, I’ve learned from my home repair books (for you kids, that’s what we used before the internet!) or by looking it up on Google and YouTube. I hate paying someone to do what I can figure out myself. I mean, why the devil should I pay an electrician $150 to install a new light fixture, when I can do that in 20  min?  Full on disclaimer inserted here: don’t take this as instructions, but it’s really not much more than “Turn off the breaker, then white to white, black to black, ground to ground. ” (If you did take what I just said as instructions, and anything bad happened, I hereby declare I told you not to take it as instructions, and it’s your problem, not mine. If I checked with my lawyer, I’m pretty sure she’d make me say that.) But I have to say I continue to be amazed at the people in my life who aren’t the least bit curious about anything. It’s not that they don’t have the ability to find the information, every single one of them owns a smart phone and can look anything up at any time. They just don’t, but instead sail blissfully through life, uncurious and unquestioning. I’m not even talking about the ones who are so buy with 2.6 children, they get a small amount of Papal dispensation. I’m talking about the rest of them that have the time and still aren’t curious. That’s so far outside of my level of comprehension.

Perhaps I’m the anomaly. I can accept that, if that’s the case, but I’ll warn you, I’m not likely to change. Oh it’s not because I’m too old to do so, but it’s because I like me like this. It’s fun! My husband and I find out the coolest stuff. Yes, there really was a private plane crash in Richfield in 1973, along with a B-52 that crashed in Inver Grove Heights in 1958, among others. I did figure out what was wrong with the camera and fixed it. Bikini Atoll? Well, there is a ton of information on the internet, and you can get a soul jarring documentary from Netflix called Radio Bikini and if it does it’s job correctly it will both break your heart and scare you to death.

And I still don’t much like plumbing.

Hail, Oceania!

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.”

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”

Do those quotes resonate? Do they make you uncomfortable? How about queasy, uneasy, want to look away, or fearful? Do you feel as if you’ve heard them before? You should. George Orwell wrote them in 1948 when he published his now famous novel “1984”, about the dystopian Oceania, a superstate in perpetual war. It’s most famous words are, of course, “Big brother is watching you”, but did any of us ever dream that we would actually live in a world where we would actually start to see this fastasy become our dark, twisted reality?

We’ve already seen the start of impingement on the fourth estate. Threats to who is allowed in the White House press room, press conferences are becoming less Q&A sessions and transitioning to briefing sessions with reduced opportunities for the press to ask questions and challenge inconsistencies, tweets about climate change removed from national park websites with the fllimsiest of excuses. The accusations of “fake news!” were heard recently when our new President would not accept being challenged, in stark contrast to his predecessor who said “it’s your job as the press to challenge me. I may not like it, but it’s your job and it makes me better as a person and as your president.” Now if a member of the media dares to challenge the status quo, they’re belittled, pointed at, scolded like a child,  and told they’re being rude, knowing all the while the press room is filled not only with fellow members of the press, but also with something called a “claque”.  From The Washington Post:

“In the description of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, a claque is: an organized body of professional applauders in the French theatres. The hiring of persons to applaud dramatic performances was common in classical times”

So President Trump has apparently arranged to bring along a group of individuals, whose job it is to start the cheering and the clapping. And of course if you’re in that room, when others are cheering and clapping, you’ll probably do so as well, because after all you don’t want to end up being the only one who isn’t, right?  Now the President has slammed a reporter and told him he’s nothing and reporting fake news, and the claque begins the clapping making it sound like they approve. How much longer before the only press that is left is the government controlled press? And the only information we recieve is that which we are given when the government wants to give it to us, selecting what limited information they want us to know?

This week we were introduced to alternative facts. I can’t help but wonder if we’ll hear that thrown out now every time we have the audicity to to question what we see, or make a statement about something. What happens when Congress votes on a bill, and it doesn’t go the way President Trump wants? Will he present the results as alternative facts and say that there were other votes we didn’t know about, or count, or should discount for this or that reason?

Let’s call an alternative fact what it is. It’s a lie. I’m not attaching malice or intent to the word, but it is a lie. What scares me, and what should scare each and everyone one of you,  is what happens when the impact of the lies moves further out? When it’s not about how many people attended the inauguration, but when he gets into a war of words with North Korea’s leader and tensions start to escalate? What about if his words seem like he will start to make moves in some of the countries that we’ve sworn to protect in Europe and the Middle East? Countries where there is oil, and where he now says we should have just taken it? Folks in these countries are a mite twitchy about this, and aren’t likely to just let us take their precious resources. (If you want to learn more about this, especially if you have family members in the military, please watch this video from The Rachel Maddow show. She does a fantastic job explaining this and why this is a terrifying scenario.)

Totalitarianism is a political system in which the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible, without any respect for human rights.

Remember the old saying “when the shoe fits”? Well, get used to that word folks. It’s feeling suspiciously like a shoe that might fit, and I’m starting to think we haven’t heard the last of it. Before too long, maybe this really will be our world:

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-4-46-59-pm

The Three R’s

Repeal…Replace…Reform…

Not the usual three words we’ve come to think of when we hear the phrase “the three R’s, but new “R” words in the news lately about Obamacare. (Yes, I know I said once I objected to the term ‘Americans’, but if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.) There is so much information that is hitting the media these days, much of it rather confusing and mystifying so I thought I’d take a stab at peeling back the proverbial curtain so you can see the little man behind it. Full disclosure: While I don’t  bill myself as an expert, I have worked in the healthcare for 40 years, the last 17 of it in insurance, which does make me more informed than the average bear.

What’s the difference between “The Affordable Care Act” and “Obamacare”? The simple answer, none. If you thought there was, you’re mistaken. You can’t repeal Obamacare and have the Affordable Care Act left to fall back on. If you get rid of Obamacare, you’ve gotten rid of the ACA. It really is that simple.

If they repeal Obamacare, what will I have for insurance? Assuming you applied for Obamacare because you didn’t qualify for something through an employer, or for Medicaid, Medicare or some other state based plan, probably nothing. That’s why repealing without something in place and ready to go is a problem. 

But they say that there will be access for everyone, right? So that’s good. Not so fast. There is a big difference between access and coverage. Access isn’t the same as actually having the insurance. I have access to any doctor or hospital I want to, if I can pay for it. What if I can’t pay for it? As Bernie Sanders said, “I have access to buying a $10 million home. But if I don’t have $10 million, then I can’t actually buy that home.”  So don’t be fooled when you hear the word access. It isn’t equal to insured, even though there are those that want you to think it is.

My premiums on Obamacare went up, it’s a failure. What a mess. So here is how that works. Insurance is all about risk. The bigger the risk pool, the more spread out the risk is. But it takes time for the pool to grow and get spread out, and you need to have both healthy AND sick people in the pool so that the risk is spread across everyone. In the first years of Obamacare, the most likely enrollees are the sickest, so there are likely to be more people seeing doctors and going to the hospital. That’s going to make premiums go up at first, then they’ll stabilize as other folks who aren’t as sick sign up. But you need to give it time. And have you checked out the cost of your care WITHOUT insurance? Here are some facts:

Average costs without insurance  

Emergency Room Visit $ 1,200.00
Uncomplicated Delivery $ 3300-37,000
Cesarean Section $ 8300-71,000
Daily inpatient rates in hospitals $ 1700-2300
Daily inpatient ICU rates in hospitals $ 4,000.00

So yep, go ahead and crab about how much it costs. Don’t come crying to me after you get the bill from your stay for that heart attack/car accident/fourth baby/slip on the ice and broke your leg in three places. Shit happens in life. That’s why we have insurance. 

So I heard with this new program, the premiums will be paid for with Health Savings Accounts instead of subsidies. Isn’t letting people set money aside pre-taxes better than giving them an after tax reduction? Well, I guess that depends on how you look at it. Sure the Health Savings Accounts can be a good thing, and a way to help reduce your tax burden, however it assumes a critical point: That you have enough disposable income after you pay your rent, bills, and buy food that you can afford to have your take home pay reduced. Because let’s face it, even though it’s set aside pre-tax, it will still reduce your take home pay. Maybe not in a 1:1 amount, but it will reduce it. So…this new plan takes away the subsidies from the people who needed it the most, and forces them to have a plan that can only be purchased if they have a Health Savings Account. Take the fictional Johnson family from Minneapolis. Tony and Sara make $34,000 a year, and have 2 children. Sara worked but found that all of her income was going to child care, so it wasn’t worth it and she quit to take care of their children. Tony works for a small company that doesn’t offer healthcare. Under Obamacare, they qualify for enough in subsidies that their monthly premium was $98. Now, under the proposed plan with Health Savings Accounts they’ll need to come up with $1102 a month, which is the current cost of the unsubsidized premium for their family. Does anyone seriously think that’s going to happen? Here’s a newsflash, it’s not. After taxes Tony is lucky if he takes home what $800, $900 per paycheck? And out of that has to come rent, utilities, the car payment, and food and we’re expected to believe that shaving $550 off the top of each check before taxes will reduce his tax burden enough that his paychecks will miraculously adjust enough so that he still takes home at least $800 each paycheck? It ain’t ever going to happen. And so we’ll see the number of newly uninsured skyrocket. Immediately. Because there is no flipping way that millions of people will be able to afford their unsubsidized premiums. They’ll go on Medicaid instead, paid for by your tax dollars. Look for an increase in your property taxes, sales taxes, levies and all sort of other taxes to offset those costs.

As a final note, here’s a message for all of our Congressmen/women and Senators on Capitol Hill. Stop fooling yourselves into thinking this is a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s not. It’s a people issue, and the sooner you start treating it like one, the sooner you’ll actually all stop with the craniorectal inversion and move toward real progress toward a solution.  Healthcare is so godawfully complicated it’s not going to be fixed in a single four year cycle. It will take that long to get it started, understand how your risk pools are imbalanced and how you can make positive changes. Those changes need to be incremental, and just a couple at a time, so you can measure, remeasure, perform some analysis and watch trends. As any halfway decent statistician can tell you, if you start reacting to every blip in the graph and don’t understand which part of your process is within statistical control and and what is out of control, pretty soon you’ll make such a mess of the process that everything will be out of control. Like overcorrecting a skidding car on ice. Instead, if everyone put down their swords, shook hands like adults and agreed to leave your party labels at the door when working on a solution, you might actually have a fighting chance of coming together to solve this. Follow quality improvement principles used in businesses such as PDCA and Kaizen. (This ain’t rocket science, it just requires you leave your egos outside the door. Sheesh.) Where I work we are fortunate to have developed a culture built on values that help us to become better and stronger as we work together. Some of those values are integrity, compassion and relationships and I can’t help but think that if applied as part of the process to solve this problem, maybe real change could finally begin.